What’s missing from Santa Monica’s downtown plan

Downtown Community Plan

There are two different visions for our downtown. Do we want to be a densely populated urban place, a smaller Downtown Los Angeles simply adjacent to a beach, or remain part of the beach and ocean environment? What is currently happening in our city has the potential to change forever the “character” that is Santa Monica. Our downtown can either be urban or beachfront — but you can’t have both. Will it have the warmth of local merchants or the coldness of indifferent mid-rise and hi-rise buildings filled with national chain stores? Will we relinquish our interest in community in favor of consumerism?

What will it take to get a downtown plan with which residents and visitors alike can be satisfied and that will allow reasonable, sustainable growth that respects the scale of our beach town and fosters intelligent design solutions?

Open space

Requirements for open space are missing from the plan. They include:

  • required front yard setbacks totaling 20 feet from curb to building line in predominately commercial areas and 15 feet in predominately residential areas and can vary with building offsets;
  • sideyard setbacks required where residential above 1st and 2nd floor commercial levels, allowing blue sky and sunlight instead of shade;
    a 5-foot rear yard setback to help activate alleys for increased pedestrian mobility;
  • development in the middle third of a block should provide a 10 feet sideyard setback for a mid-block “paseo or arcade” in lieu of other code required community benefits (i.e. TDM payments, etc.);
  • alleys that are now under-developed should be beautified as secondary mini-promenades, providing more access to downtown from transit, especially Expo, and allowing for small commercial outlets such as shoe repair, cleaning pickup and drop-offs, etc. Truck deliveries should be scheduled so to minimize pedestrian and vehicular interface;
  • Widened tree-lined sidewalks with trees at a minimum of 25 feet o.c.
    And most importantly, open space is to be defined as starting at the ground and remaining open to the sky.

Height and FAR

We don’t need excessive height and density to entertain tourists or to be healthy economically. The plan as written allows 67 percent of downtown to be 100 feet tall when “decorative features” are added, while currently 67 percent of downtown is 32 feet or less. In effect, this plan more than triples the overall height of today’s downtown! Is that what we want to maintain a beachfront community?

The plan states the “city should have a clear and realistic vision of what Downtown is and can become.” But there is no mention of how much area is necessary without losing our quality of life and environment — how much housing, how much office space, how many hotel rooms, how much infrastructure (schools, parking, piping) is needed to support this vision. And where will the water come from?

  • Maximum development should be 4 stories, and 50 feet with a 3.0 FAR (Floor Area Ratio), leaving a 25-percent open space envelope.
  • Developments with a footprint of 3 parcels or 22,500 square feet should require planning commission review, City Council review and approval, as well as the Santa Monica residents approval as outlined in the LUVE initiative, not simple staff approval of any project up top 100,000 square feet as proposed in the plan.
  • “Opportunity sites” in the plan should not exist, as they give special conditions to specific developers in what is often referred to as “spot zoning,” and did not exist in the LUCE.
  • Development agreements are permitted by state law to be applied for, but there is no requirement for them to be approved.

Cultural and community facilities

  • The downtown plan emphasizes the importance of community and cultural facilities. That’s good. It claims to analyze and address these issues but doesn’t, and that’s bad.
  • Such facilities can and should be located on city-owned property funded by an assessment on new development or by streamlining existing city expenditures. That would be good.
  • 4th/5th & Arizona should be a central plaza with the museum and playhouse (called for in the DCP) along the southerly periphery, and the street festivals (identified in the DCP) located within the plaza, and with the conversion of Arizona between the Third Street Promenade and 5th Street to an on demand promenade. Below the plaza should be a 3- or 4-level subterranean parking structure owned by the City of Santa Monica. That would be good.
  • The Civic Center site should provide athletic fields and an open air amphitheater for synergistic use by the Civic Auditorium and Samohi, and civic land should not be a giveaway to Santa Monica College. That would be good.
  • Maintain and update the existing parking structure on 4th Street and forgo the proposed movie complex. That would be smart.

Building design and massing

  • A punch card of balcony projections should not be the predominant design vocabulary as we currently see being approved and built.
  • In addition to sideyard setbacks above first- and second-floor commercial, minimum 8- to10-foot vertical and/or horizontal offsets in the basic building form/envelope to avoid the heaviness of in-line massing.
  • Where feasible, second-story landscaped areas can be used to benefit residents and visually separate the first floor commercial from upper floors but does not count as required open space.

Housing and adaptive reuse

  • Lower height limits will limit escalation of land cost and reduce construction cost resulting in a potential stabilizing effect on rents and will encourage re-utilizing existing buildings, which is more sustainable than tearing down and building new.
  • Assuming only 65 percent of the vacant land and 1- and 2- story lots were re-developed and/or adaptively re-purposed for truly affordable housing, with 4-story-maximum mixed-use buildings, together with projects already approved, there will be over 4,000 new residents in the downtown. This, coupled with the real possibility of three times that amount on the boulevards, represents a nearly 15-percent increase in the city’s resident population! And this is with only two-thirds of the readily developable property built to maximum 3 and 4 stories! There is simply no proven need for more growth.
  • Acknowledge the car is not yet dead and provide adequate parking for the residents and their guests. Garages can be converted to other uses when an adequate transit system is functional.

 

Mobility

  • Among many long range possibilities discussed in the DCP, and in addition to wider sidewalks and bicycle improvements, we suggest the city look into the immediate possibility of a shared private-public partnership with a parking operator managing and using 9-5 weekday commercial parking lots for night and weekend use.
  • In addition, parking lots on the downtown periphery, such as the Broad Theatre at 11th and Santa Monica, be made available. This would keep a number of car trips from entering the downtown grid and instead take a connecting electric jitney to shopping or the movies.

Conclusions

  • The Downtown Community Plan in every chapter emphasizes the overriding importance of maintaining the “character, vitality and charm” of downtown Santa Monica, and the Council and Planning Commission need to honor that mandate.
  • Take the politics out of the approval process. No development agreements.
  • If the final version of the DCP doesn’t protect the residents, the LUVE Initiative must be approved.
  • The real “character” is found in the benefit of lower heights and our connection to the beach and ocean!
  • The real “community benefit” for the residents, as well as tourists and the visitor businesses, is the healthy environment found in a low-rise beachfront town.

SMa.r.t. is not against development, but we want responsible development. The issues we have outlined above should be thoughtfully considered by our planning staff, Planning Commission and City Council, in a new document crafted such that it respects the concerns of our residents.

This is a pivotal point in our city’s history. Let the council, city manager and planning director know where you stand. If staff and council won’t stand up to this reality, then residents have no choice but to approve the LUVE initiative.

Ron Goldman and Sam Tolkin for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

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